Why head to the south of France when the north has so much to offer? I get it. It’s what almost everyone does. “It’s wall to wall sunshine in the south” they say. “There are beaches. The food is fabulous. The map says follow this route for a whole day.”
But take it from me, stop off in the north of France and you’ll find out why that habit of heading south needs to change. Discover a part of France that’s truly authentic, where the food is sensational, the countryside is idyllic and the seaside is glorious. There are historic towns and cities, battlefield and remembrance sites, world-class museums, gorgeous little villages, spectacular countryside with great cycling and hiking routes, water sports and some activities that are unique. And if that sounds tempting – then I know just the place for you… Saint-Omer is an absolute jewel of the north of France.
Saint-Omer in the Pas de Calais department is just 30 minutes from Calais by car and 2.5 hours from Paris by car or train. It is a town that has an extraordinary history spanning millennia. The Romans set up shop here. Thomas Becket AKA Saint Thomas of Canterbury, took refuge there. Three of America’s Founding Fathers studied at the Jesuit Chapel. Saint-Omer is the symbolic home of the British Royal Air Force and it’s where Douglas Bader, hero of the RAF in WWII was shot down, escaped from his captors and was sheltered in the town.
And surrounding Saint-Omer is some of the most bucolic countryside in France, with shades of the Dordogne.
Visit the town
Start your visit at Place du Maréchal Foch in the centre of the town. It’s lined with gourmet food shops and cafés that are perfect for sitting outside and watching the life of the town go on. Behind the theatre which dominates this ancient square, is Guy Delalleau’s delicious boulangerie/patisserie – his cakes are like small works of art and taste as good as they look – it’s not to be missed. Around the squares are cobbled streets with 300 year old merchants houses and majestic manors, a place that lures artists to capture the topsy-turvy Flemish style. The River Aa runs through the town and makes for a pretty walk and if you happen to be there in the last week in July, you’ll be able to join in the fun of the annual nautical procession, a carnival of floats on water!
Park your car (there are several free car parks) and pick up a map from the tourist office. It’s in a tranquil green area behind the Cathedral and where you can sit on Paris style park chairs at the café and listen to those mellow bells ring. And if you go on Saturday morning, you’ll find one of the best markets in the region. Saint-Omer is a place to wander, and discover it’s many secrets…
The former Cathedral of Notre Dame is a stunning, flamboyant 13th century Gothic church and inside is even more impressive. It houses the tomb of Saint Omer, medieval funeral slabs, a several centuries old statue of Christ and a collection of paintings including The Descent from The Cross by Rubens. There are several ornate marble side chapels inside one of which hangs an RAF regimental flag, a reminder that the aerodrome at Longuenesse on the outskirts of Saint-Omer is the spiritual home of the RAF, the successor to the Royal Flying Corps who had their HQ here during WWI. The Cathedral also houses a mind-boggling astronomical clock dating to 1588, one of the oldest in France. There’s also a vast 300 year-old 115-pipe organ, a listed historic monument, which if you are lucky enough to hear played, will leave you with a lasting memory.
Palais de Cathédrale
Around the great Cathedral are beautiful mansion houses including the Palais de la Cathédrale at 12 Rue Henri Dupuis. Owner Jean-Luc Montois has spent the last few years restoring it to look as it did two hundred years ago when it was lived in by a local merchant. Although Jean-Luc lives there, he has opened it to the public and to enter is like stepping back in time. It is an extraordinary, exquisite home that is filled with wonderful treasures that he has collected for many decades. Book a tour via Saint-Omer tourist office
A sumptuous Theatre
The locals affectionally call the exquisite domed building which dominates the Place du Marechal Foch – Le Moulin à café, the coffee grinder. Completed in 1840 on the site of the former 14th century Alderman’s Hall, it became the Town Hall complete with an opulent Italian-style theatre which gave the local bigwigs bragging rights. The theatre closed in 1973 and for 45 years was hidden from sight. In 2018, after restoration, it reopened to the public, complete with the original stage machinery. In its day it attracted some of the most performers of the time including Edith Piaf and Luis Mariano. Under an ornate ceiling, the circular opera-style theatre has three balconies and private boxes. Book tickets via labacarolle.org
From the outside, the municipal library in Saint-Omer does little to tempt. It’s a modern building of the sort found in every town in every country. But – go inside, head to the first floor and discover the wood-panelled former Jesuit Chapel library filled with thousands of ancient books some of which date to the 7th century. Their collection includes a first volume Gutenberg Bible. Less than 50 of the original 180 copies thought to be printed have survived. Not long ago, an eagle-eyed librarian dusting the shelves spotted a Shakespeare first Folio. Those two books alone are worth some $50million.
The Jesuit Chapel
Next door to the library, the Jesuit Chapel was built from 1615 to 1640 by Jean du Blocq (1583-1656), a Jesuit architect who also designed the Cathedral of Luxembourg. He was inspired by Gesù, the Jesuit church in Rome, combined with Gothic style. It’s here that Founding Fathers Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence, Daniel Carroll, one of the Constitution’s two authors, and John Carroll who became America’s first Catholic Bishop and founder of Georgetown University, spent many years studying. It’s now used as a performance and cultural venue.
Abbey of Saint-Bertin
By the neo-classical train station of Saint-Omer, one of the most beautiful in France and a listed historic monument, you’ll find the remains of Saint Bertin’s Abbey. It was destroyed during the French Revolution. But it was here that in the 7th century, a Swiss monk called Omer arrived. He’d been sent to become Bishop of nearby Thérouanne. He founded an abbey in what was known then as Sitiu. It became the Abbey of Saint Bertin, named after one of Omer’s helpers. The town that grew up around it became Saint-Omer. The abbey was expanded over the years and was updated to the Gothic style now evident in the ruins.
It was here in 1165 that Thomas Beckett who became a Saint, sought refuge from Henry II. The abbey became so important that a prince’s quarters was built for visiting Kings and Queens. Francis 1 came here on his way to the Field of the Cloth of Gold Summit with Henry VIII in nearby Guînes. Historians believe that Anne Boleyn may also have been there in the retinue of Queen Claude, wife of King France, though no one knows if she met Henry VIII at this time. Coincidentially, it was from Saint-Omer that Henry VIII later sought a swordsman to lop off poor Anne’s head.
Loved by a King
Louis XIV also came here in 1677 when Saint-Omer, which had been under Spanish rule, was taken back by the French. He visited the floating islands of the marshes that surround the town, famous even then. In fact he was so impressed he returned three years later with the entire royal family and the court. He stayed at the Governor’s Hotel at the spot where the Sandelin Museum now is. The people of Saint-Omer marked his first visit with an inscription on the grand doors to the Cathedral. You can still see it, proudly displayed! Louis rewarded the town by having his engineer Vauban reinforce the rampart walls which now encircle a beautiful park.
The museum contains works by Flemish, Dutch and French masters, tapestries. There’s also a wonderful collection of ceramics. Plus a fascinating clay pipe collection which pays homage to the town’s past as an important producer of pipes and pottery.
After you’ve enjoyed the many attractions of the town, nip to the countryside on its doorstep and discover the Clairmarais. The UNESCO listed biosphere marshland iswhere you can take a boat ride and discover the wildlife, unusual residences and much, much more…
The Audomarois Marshlands
Hire a boat or take a guided ride in traditional wooden bacoves. Float along tree-lined canals buzzing with bird life, where migrating herons stop off and the postman delivers post by boat. It’s the only area in France with such a service to homes which sit on floating islands in the marshes. This 15 square mile network of canals and farmland is unique in France and a UNESCO-listed Biosphere Reserve. It was started by monks in 638. They diverted the River Aa, divided the land into plots and farmed the land. Today a few dozen market gardeners continue to work the plots. It is the cauliflower capital of France with some 5million grown each year.
Visit the Maison du Marais, less than 10 minutes on foot from the centre of Saint-Omer. It’s dedicated to the history of the marshes, features exhibits, an educational garden, and boat tours of the marshes. lamaisondumarais.com/en
Meet the last of the Saint-Omer boat makers: In a wooden shed on the edge of the marsh, a team of enthusiasts make up the last Audomarois shipyard in existence. Take a fascinating guided tour to discover how this family business continues to hand-make the traditional wooden boats of the marshes. They use 500 year-old plans and wood that is up to 100 years old.
You can also hire a boat here: lesfaiseursdebateaux.fr
Explore in style: Hire a 2CV, VW camper van or vintage electric bikes for a day, half-day or weekend. les-belles-echappees.com
Beer: While you’re at their office, nip to the brewery on the grounds of an extraordinary Abbey. It was founded by Saint Bernard de Clairvaux in the 12th century. But the once monumental Monastery of Clairmairais was yet another victim of the French Revolution and now just ruins remain. There was a brewery on the grounds until 1790 and it’s here that Laurent Delafosse now brews his fabulous beers. w
True beer lovers shouldn’t miss a visit to the Brasserie Goudale in nearby Arques. It’s a branch of the Brasserie de Saint-Omer company, a hugely successful brewery started by the legendary André Pecque AKA the ‘King of Beer’. Some of his best known brews include La Goudale (Old English for good ale), Saint-Omer and Le Panaché. Brasserie-goudale.com
Rando Rail: Pedal a 4-person kart on an old railway line through leafy woods and across fields on a 10km ride. www.rando-rail.com
La Coupole is an unmissable visit just 7km from Saint-Omer. Beneath a 72 metres wide, five-and-a-half metres thick, 55,000 tonne concrete dome, Hitler had a secret V2 rocket base built. A strike to the entrance put paid to its aim to churn out bomb-carrying rockets. Today it is a fascinating and haunting historical and scientific museum. You get goosebumps when you walk into the chilly and chilling 20 metre high tunnels where the V2 rockets were prepared for launch.
This former bunker is also the home of the most advanced planetarium in the world. With a unique 15m wide screen with 10K resolution, the seats are interactive with audience response technology and the 3D films (D-Day Normandy, 1944; Explore and Voyager which make you feel as if you’re in space with astronauts) are nothing short of utterly incredible. I promise you I gasped out loud and ducked when rocks from Mars came hurtling towards my head! lacouple-france.com
Vintage train ride: in nearby Arques, hop on a steam train or vintage train and explore the gorgeous countryside in style on the Aa Valley tourist railway. cftva62.com
Day at the seaside: Saint-Omer is around one hour from the glorious beaches of the Opal Coast including Wimereux with its Belle Epoque villas, Audresselles an authentic little fishing village and historic Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Where to eat
Traditional: La Baguernette on the edge of the marshes, and next to the embarkation point for a boat trip. Their speciality is suckling pig cooked in milk for eight hours in a wood-fired oven. They also serve local favourite beer tart, utterly irresistible. labaguernette.fr/en
Upmarket: La Bacôve, opened by Top Chef winner Camille Delcroix. Refined, innovative and seriously scrumptious food in a beautiful setting. restaurant-bacove.com
Tourist office: tourisme-saintomer.com